For Thanksgiving feast, perfect sweet potato pie

Hundreds make annual pilgrimage to Oxon Hill and a small restaurant for the ultimate carryout

November 22, 2006|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,Sun reporter

OXON HILL -- Pity the poor sweet potato pie maker. All too often, the baker must contend with a formidable - possibly unattainable - request: Make a pie that tastes like grandma's. Hers were sweet, but not too sweet, with a sunset orange, spice-flecked filling that tasted like a brisk autumn day.

It's not easy to get it right, but some insist that the small crew at Henry's Soul Cafe in Oxon Hill has mastered the art of the sweet potato pie. Believers express their appreciation by showing up en masse as Thanksgiving approaches and walking away with thousands of the golden $7.50 confections.

With all ovens firing, staff members can peel, boil, mix, mash, bake and crank out 120 pies an hour in a crunched spot in back of the small restaurant. Before the week is out, the owners expect to sell nearly 5,000 pies.

"I'm from North Carolina and I'm here to get six," said James Parks, 62, as he waited in line Sunday evening. "The sugar is just right. ... And the texture! No lumps. No strings."

He likes the nutmeg, he said, and what he imagines is a whisper of vanilla. It tastes like the pies he grew up eating.

Parks, who was in the area on a business trip, used to live in D.C. and was a regular at Henry's for years before moving south. The pies he picked up over the weekend will mostly go to family, but one was for him and him only. He expected to polish it off in his hotel room before heading home.

"It's late to have more than one slice now, but it's possible," he said, as he headed out the door with a bag of boxed pies.

Meanwhile, backstage - past the potato salad, greens and chicken wings - co-owner Bernard Brooks was surrounded by 30 boxes of jumbo North Carolina sweet potatoes, several steaming pots, piles of eggs, sticks of butter and a stack of prepared crusts. The radio was tuned to gospel, and the rear of the hot kitchen smelled sweet and a little nutmeg-y.

"This is where it happens. This is our pie manufacturer back here," he said. He peeled as he spoke, taking long, virtuosic strokes.

Brooks, 35, a former sports entertainment manager, started the business in 1997 with his friend Jermaine Smith. They took their name from the soul food restaurant that Smith's father founded in Washington in 1968. That restaurant is a similar but smaller operation that Smith, 32, now owns and runs with his sister. The pie recipe came straight from the elder Smith.

Brooks is more of a businessman than a chef, but he knows a few tricks from growing up on a farm in Brandywine, not far from where he lives now, and he peels these prodigious potatoes like a champ. Using a small knife, he can fill a full-sized garbage can with potato skins in less than 30 minutes. At this time of year, he's usually the peeler-in-chief.

"I'm used to it now," he said as his knife whooshed and strips with pale orange undersides fluttered into the trash.

He peeled as others chopped and hauled huge silver pots of the potatoes to the stove to boil. Once soft, the potatoes are vigorously mashed by hand - machines, Brooks said, don't have heart - and mixed with a mystery concoction of butter, eggs, spices and other ingredients. You can ask what's in the fluffy, orange filling, but you won't get very far.

"Good try," said Antionette Robinson, Smith's cousin and the restaurant manager. "But that's a secret."

Robinson, who said she works best under pressure, ladled the orange mixture into the shells, gave them a good shake to even out the filling, then popped them into an oven to bake. After about an hour, the crust turns golden, the orange hue deepens and the pies are done.

Potato after potato, hour after hour, pie after pie, this is what it's like back here, and the pace only grows more urgent as the holiday gets closer.

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Brooks' father and another cousin always pull an all-nighter so that when the craziest crowd descends on Wednesday morning, about 600 or 700 pies are waiting in reserve. Most customers make pie pickup appointments to avoid a wait and they swirl through the shop all day long. By evening, the backlog is gone and the pies are coming straight out of the oven and into pie buyers' hands.

In the old days, customers would sometimes wait for hours and little scuffles would occasionally break out when fresh batches finally appeared. The kinks have been smoothed out of the system, but now and again, the cafe runs into little pie problems.

Sometimes, for example, people show up late on Wednesday night pretending they have an appointment, Brooks said. They'll huff and puff and they usually have to wait, but they almost always walk out with a pie. He doesn't say no to anyone.

Personally, Brooks prefers his pie hot with a little vanilla ice cream, though after testing all day for consistency, he acknowledges serious pie fatigue. Smith, too: He has been sick of sweet potato pie since he was 6 years old, he said.

But that hasn't dampened their desire to build a sweet potato pie empire. They have visions of getting their pie kits - which allow customers to bake the pies themselves - into big grocery stores. "We want to be known globally," Smith said.

But first, the Thanksgiving rush. Someone had already placed a 50-pie order, and the weekend brought the first big wave of holiday pie buyers.

Sheryl Bellamy of Fort Washington was picking up three pies Sunday and had an order for three more later in the week. She planned to take half to her family gathering and half to a party for veterans at a nearby hospital.

"This as close to homemade as I'm going to get because I'm not going to make them myself," said Bellamy, 59. "I'm from the South and these are homemade, like Southern homemade pies. They're nice and fluffy and smooth and have lots of flavor."

Then she uttered those magic words: "Whatever his recipe is, it's probably the same one my grandmother used.

"They were like these."

rona.marech@baltsun.com

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